WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve Board's second-in-command gave the most detailed look yet Friday at how the agency plans to supervise financial holding companies, and tried to allay fears it will be heavy-handed.

In a speech to the National Association of Urban Bankers in San Francisco, Fed Vice Chairman Roger W. Ferguson Jr. said the central bank's main task will be assessing the overall risk profile and capital adequacy of the new diversified conglomerates permitted by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999.

Mr. Ferguson pledged that in fulfilling its role, the central bank will use information collected by the functional regulators of the company's subsidiaries as extensively as possible to minimize regulatory burden.

However, he said that under some circumstances those subsidiaries may have to report directly to the Fed, and that the central bank might join functional regulators in joint examinations. In all cases Fed officials will meet regularly with the board and top management of financial holding companies, and will conduct reviews of their centralized risk management and audit practices.

Financial holding companies were created by Gramm-Leach-Bliley as a vehicle for increased affiliation between banks, insurance companies, and securities firms.

The law makes the Fed responsible for overall supervision of financial holding companies, while allowing for state and federal agencies with specific areas of expertise - such as insurance or securities - to supervise those activities of affiliates.

That structure, he said, requires an agency responsible for assessing overall risk. "Even if individual subsidiaries are considered to be financially strong and well-managed by bank, thrift, or functional regulators, their risk profiles may change when they are amalgamated into a consolidated organization," he said.

Mr. Ferguson tried to assuage nonbank financial services companies' fears about increased regulatory burden under a Fed-administered system.

"Umbrella supervision is not intended to impose bank-like supervision on financial holding companies as a whole, or on either regulated or non-regulated non-bank subsidiaries of financial holding companies," he said.

So far, though, the majority of the 100 largest bank holding companies in the United States have not filed for financial holding company status, and Charles Schwab & Co. is the only major securities firm to do so. Questions about how the Fed will supervise these financial conglomerates is widely believed to be keeping many nonbank institutions on the sidelines.

Industry observers doubted that Mr. Ferguson's speech would coax many onto the field.

"The perception these companies have is that the burden of being supervised by the Fed outweighs the benefits," said Richard M. Whiting, executive director of the Financial Services Roundtable. "It is an open question as to whether the companies that have declined to become certified will find comfort in the approach outlined here."

One of the most worrisome issues for many is capital.

The law bars the Fed from imposing capital requirements on financial subsidiaries that satisfy the capital requirements of their functional regulators. But the central bank argues that in the case of large financial conglomerates, the capital of the parts may not be sufficient to protect the whole.

Some observers saw this as the Fed leaving open the possibility of a capital requirement for financial holding companies.

"I think they intend to impose a parent-company capital level - probably tailored on a case-by-case basis - that superimposes a bank holding company-style capital regime on the assets and activities of all the lines of business controlled by the financial holding company," said Karen Shaw Petrou, president of the consulting firm ISD/Shaw in Washington.


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